Bu­dapest PLUS 48 Hours in Madrid

BI­SECTED BY THE DANUBE, BU­DAPEST IS A CITY OF TWO HALVES: VER­DANT PARKS AND COB­BLED LANES ON ONE SIDE, GOR­GEOUS, GOLD-HUED AR­CHI­TEC­TURE AND TEEM­ING NIGHTLIFE ON THE OTHER

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - WORDS TABITHA LASLEY

by­passed by stag party-go­ers. Ig­nored by the Con­ti­nen­tal coach-tour crowd. In­ex­pli­ca­bly jilted by cou­ples in their haste to get to Paris or Prague. Bu­dapest is the Cin­derella of cen­tral Europe. Or at least it was. Last year, a read­ers’ choice award in a top travel mag­a­zine voted it the sec­ond-best city on the planet. (Cape Town came in 11th place; San Miguel de Al­lende in Mex­ico nabbed the top spot.) Right now, you can still en­joy the city’s broad boule­vards, char­ac­ter­ful bars and hot springs all to yourself, but hurry.The word’s out.

TWO MOODS

Bu­dapest is es­sen­tially two cities in one: se­date, hilly Buda on the west bank of the Danube, and buzzy, low-ly­ing Pest on the east. Ar­riv­ing on ei­ther side, any­one even vaguely ac­quainted with Paris will feel a faint sense of déjà vu: with its tree-lined av­enues and Art Nou­veau façades, the city shares some of the French cap­i­tal’s DNA, al­though 150 years of Ot­toman rule have put an op­u­lent, east­ern cast on the ar­chi­tec­ture (you have them to thank for the domed roofs and Turk­ish baths).

In fact, Bu­dapest has been tugged in sev­eral dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions by suc­ces­sive in­vaders (the Huns, the Turks, the Haps­burgs, the Sovi­ets). Hun­gar­i­ans of­ten com­plain of feel­ing stranded be­tween east and west, and this sense of cul­tural dis­place­ment has left its mark on more than just the build­ings. In the 1980s Hun­gary had the high­est recorded rate

of sui­cide in the world. Though the last two decades have seen it slip down that list, and Bu­dapest to­day feels en­er­gised and op­ti­mistic, the Hun­gar­ian na­tional char­ac­ter does re­tain some­thing of that old in­ner dark­ness. Talk in bars comes clever, se­ri­ous and laced with the cordite whiff of fa­tal­ism.

I have to ad­mit, I dragged my feet a bit when my boyfriend an­nounced he wanted to start the day at the House of Ter­ror ( Ter­ror­haza.hu), a mu­seum in Pest that documents 40 years of Com­mu­nist rule. But it’s es­sen­tial view­ing, serv­ing as a re­minder of how far Hun­gary has come. If you can, walk back via the red-roofed Houses of Par­lia­ment (Kos­suth La­jos tér 1-3): the square here still bears the bul­let holes of the 1956 up­ris­ing.

I was hop­ing to off­set a morn­ing’s cul­ture by spend­ing the rest of the day eat­ing cake, swill­ing Tokaji wine and flop­ping round in our com­fort­able suite. But in­stead we went to the Do­hány Street Syn­a­gogue ( Do­hanyut­caizsi­n­a­goga.hu), the largest in Europe, and I’m glad we did: first, be­cause the syn­a­gogue looks so be­guil­ingly strange (a melange of Moor­ish, Gothic and Byzan­tine in­flu­ences). And be­cause it houses the Raoul Wallenberg Me­mo­rial Park. In the cool, dark court­yard there’s a steel weep­ing wil­low, each leaf carved with names of the dead. It com­mem­o­rates not only the 400 000 Hun­gar­ian Jews killed in the Holo­caust, but also the re­silience of the sur­vivors.

SOAK IT ALL IN

Not all Bu­dapest cul­ture is so con­fronting. The Ot­tomans’ part­ing gift – tiled bath­houses – mean you can spend hours soak­ing in hot wa­ter and le­git­i­mately call it sight­see­ing. Bu­dapest is the spa cap­i­tal of Europe, with more geo­ther­mal sites than any other city. Some spas are exclusive, like the eyrie on top of the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel Gre­sham Palace ( Foursea­sons.com/bu­dapest).

Oth­ers are cheer­fully demo­cratic. The 16th century Ru­das Baths ( Rudas­baths.com) is the old­est spa in the city, and of­fers un­der­wa­ter mas­sages. Go on a Tues­day or week­ends; at other times, it’s men only. The Gel­lért Spa ( Gellert­bath.com) is cer­tainly the most fa­mous. We vis­ited the Széchenyi Baths ( Szecheny­i­bath.com) in spring and had the bene­dic­tion of the slant­ing Hun­gar­ian sun, but it’s even bet­ter in win­ter, when you can en­joy the sur­real sen­sa­tion of steam­ing in the wa­ter as snowflakes set­tle on your skin.

Fun fact: Hun­gary re­port­edly has the high­est pro­por­tion of green-eyed people in the world (one per cent of people glob­ally have green eyes, as op­posed to 20 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion here). It seemed al­most ev­ery­one I met looked back at me with envy-coloured eyes; the rabbi at Do­hány Street Syn­a­gogue, the re­cep­tion­ist at the Four Sea­sons, the sales as­sis­tant in the book­shop.

REIN­VENTED CUI­SINE

Like many cen­tral Euro­pean coun­tries, Hun­gary has a rep­u­ta­tion for serv­ing mostly bad food. While I have some sym­pa­thy for the drub­bing they’ve re­ceived (I’m English, af­ter all) it has to be said that a lot of their dishes are in­deli­bly bad: thin broth, heavy dumplings, pan­cakes filled with uniden­ti­fi­able bits of meat. But a few chefs are now re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing the cui­sine, treat­ing sta­ples with a lighter touch and win­ning Miche­lin stars in the process.

For mod­ern Hun­gar­ian, try ei­ther Costes or Onyx in Pest.The nar­row din­ing room at Costes ( Costes.hu) is dec­o­rated in such min­i­mal style it re­sem­bles the set of a fringe play, pre­sum­ably to off­set the var­ie­gated beauty of the food: scar­let and cream mac­a­roons; cool jade cu­cum­ber shaved into spi­rals; translu­cent spheres of sal­mon caviar.

At the more for­mal Onyx ( Onyxrestau­rant.hu), try the veal tartare with green ap­ple and wood sor­rel, fol­lowed by its 21st century take on the Somló sponge cake.

You can’t gorge on Miche­lin-starred food all the time, though, and you won’t need to. Our best meal was lunch at 21 Hun­gar­ian Kitchen ( 21restau­rant.hu), a laid-back bistro in the Cas­tle District that serves food like cel­ery and el­der­flower ravi­oli in broth.

One more thing: Bu­dapest runs on strong cof­fee (an­other legacy of Turk­ish rule) and lo­cals take theirs with thick slabs of cake. By­pass the tourist trap of Café Ger­beaud, and tuck into do­bos (sponge lay­ered with choco­late, nuts and caramel), and es­ter­házy, filled with cream and al­monds, or má­tyás cake at diminu­tive Ruszwurm on the Buda side ( Ruszwurm.hu).

TAKE IT OUT­SIDE

Buda is con­nected to Pest by a se­ries of el­e­gant bridges, yet it feels quite re­moved from the teem­ing city cen­tre. Some pre­fer to take the fu­nic­u­lar up to the Cas­tle District, but we chose to walk, and the views across the Danube were their own re­ward. Be­hind the cas­tle com­plex (home to the Bu­dapest Na­tional Gallery and the Na­tional Li­brary), the cob­bled streets feel slow and com­par­a­tively sub­ur­ban. Come here for breath­ing space, quiet cafés and a glimpse of the Matthias Church with its Baroque ar­chi­tec­ture and di­a­mond-pat­terned roof.

This pas­toral feel ex­tends to Pest’s kerteks, ‘ruin bars’ set around open-air court­yards that come into their own in high sum­mer. Sz­im­pla Kert ( Sz­im­pla.hu) is the best known, but if you’re af­ter some­thing a lit­tle smoother around the edges, try Ötk­ert ( Otk­ert.hu), which serves Cham­pagne cock­tails to a dressed-up crowd. Though not ac­tu­ally a ruin bar, Brody Stu­dios ( Brody­house.com), in the city’s upand-com­ing 8th District, works along the same art­fully dis­tressed lines. Along­side the usual ros­ter of live mu­sic, they host lit­er­ary din­ners, art ex­hi­bi­tions and film screen­ings.

In fact, wher­ever you go in Bu­dapest, pre­pare to skip the small talk. Hun­gar­i­ans like to mull over big ques­tions and hard truths with their drinks. At Doblo ( Bu­dapest­wine.com), a vaulted wine bar with bare brick walls and dark wood ta­bles, the ur­sine, grimly charis­matic owner, David Popovits, plied us with a full­bod­ied red to go with pick­les, sausage and smoked goose­breast sand­wiches, while talk­ing to us about melan­cholic Hun­gar­ian con­cerns, mar­riage, love and loy­alty.

Bou­tiq’ Bar ( Bou­tiqbar.hu), a dark, doll-sized speakeasy tucked away down a side street near the river, has the best stocked bar in the city. Owner Zoltán Nagy trained for sev­eral years in Lon­don and came back full of mis­sion­ary zeal, de­ter­mined to turn his home­town onto cock­tails. And if his car­damomed cre­ation (straw­ber­ries and car­damom pods, blended with sev­eral shots of vodka) doesn’t man­age to con­vert them? Then, frankly, they’re be­yond help.

Clock­wise from far left The Danube flows serenely past the Hun­gar­ian Par­lia­ment; Fash­ion Street; a wall in the House of Ter­ror, hon­our­ing vic­tims of Hun­gary’s Com­mu­nist past; street style; the Széchenyi Baths; the in­te­rior of Bou­tiq’Bar.

Clock­wise from above Ötk­ert night­club by day; a lo­cal fash­ion­ista; the Hun­gar­ian Agri­cul­tural Mu­seum; the pre­ferred way to get about.

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